I love the TV show Firefly -- I say "love" in the present tense because even though the network it was on couldn't keep one neuron firing long enough to let it stay on the air, I own the DVDs and I can watch it whenever I want.
There's a scene in the pilot episode in which a preacher -- called a "shepherd" in this show's world -- wonders whether he should stay on the spaceship he's boarded. The captain and crew don't like him, he failed to protect someone he wanted to safeguard, and it seems like there's no place for him here. He makes this confession to a woman called a "companion," which is a very high-priced and selective call girl. She embraces him -- chastely! -- and says something like, "Maybe that means you're needed here most."
In a discussion group about the show, I read a number of opinions from Christians who were offended by the scene. A preacher or holy man taking advice and compassion from a woman like that? Receive a gesture of grace from a whore? What kind of religious leader would accept that kind of welcome such from such a sinner?
Allow me to introduce you to Jesus of Nazareth, who may be doing exactly that right here in the gospel.
Jesus dines at the house of Simon the Pharisee, which is interesting already because we're conditioned to think of the Pharisees as the guys who are always out to get Jesus and who lay many heavy legalistic burdens on the people. But they began as people who thought that if you were going to call yourself a follower of God, then you ought to live a life that showed it. For them, that meant following the Law of Moses, and if some of them got a little enthusiastic in expounding on that law, apparently not all of them did. Jesus intrigued those Pharisees, because his message about repenting because the kingdom was at hand wasn't far off of theirs.
But while he's there, this woman -- a sinner, Luke tells us, for reasons we'll catch up with in a minute -- comes to Jesus, weeping so much she actually bathes his feet, dries them with her hair and then anoints them with ointment she's carrying that's probably perfumed. Simon is scandalized -- if Jesus was as good a teacher as some claimed him to be, he'd know she was a sinner and he'd know what people would start to think when they saw him accept such an intimate act from her.
'Cause, as Luke goes out of his way to remind us, she's a sinner. Of course, so was everyone else at that table except Jesus, but she's singled out. Why? No certain reason, but I think he was trying to politely hint that she was, maybe, a professional sinner. As in the world's oldest profession? As in, well, I don't want the children to hear, a sinner, and I don't mean she didn't buy her food at the kosher deli?
Jesus obviously knows what Simon is thinking. So he says, "Simon, got a story for you." Simon says, "Let's hear it."
"Two guys owe this fellow some money. One owes him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. He forgives both debts. Which one will be more grateful?"
"The one who owed him the most," Simon says. "Bingo!" Jesus says (I'm paraphrasing).
"Now, you invited me to dine with you but you didn't set out anything for me to wash with or freshen up or give me a kiss of greeting. This woman, though, hasn't stopped washing my feet or kissing me in greeting since I showed up. She's being forgiven a lot, so she is showing a lot of gratitude. People who aren't forgiven as much don't show as much." Then he makes it explicit, telling the woman her sins are forgiven and she can go in peace.
Our issue is that for most of us, we aren't as aware as we should be that we are just as much in need of grace as the worst sinner we could imagine. Sin isn't adding up a bunch of evil; it's separation from God. Give me the choice of which sinner to live next door to and I'll take the arrogant self-righteous jerk over the thief every time, but that doesn't mean that either of them is any more or less separated from God. One debtor may have owed more money than the other one in Jesus's story, but both were debtors. One sinner may have piled up more wrong deeds than another, but both are separated from God.
Well, both used to be separated from God, that is. In Christ, we're offered a reunion with God. We're offered a restoration of the relationship we were born to have but lost as we tried to set ourselves up as the gods of our own lives.
And at the last, it isn't that Sinner A is forgiven a whole lot and Sinner B is forgiven just a little. If we are really going to accept the gospel message and live it out, then we have to understand that the key is that Sinner A and Sinner B, as well as Sinners C through Z and way more than we have letters for, are all forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.
That sounds like good news to me.